Today it is possible to mash together Web services into a passable site with only a hobbyist's knowledge of programming. Tools like Yahoo Pipes get you started with the concepts, and then the APIs for products like Google Maps make things like the Chicago Crime Map buildable without requiring a large investment in original technology.
The same has not been true for hardware, but Peter Semmelhack at Bug Labs wants to change that. The company is releasing a hardware development system made of sensing and input modules that snap into a low-cost central Linux-based core, allowing you to mash up your own gadget. The main core, the BugBase, is bit larger than an iPhone. The modules that snap into it are half that size and a standard BugBase has four ports for modules.
Say you want to make some sort of gizmo for your car that records location and acceleration and displays stats on a screen. You could try to write a program for an existing GPS gadget, or you could snap together the necessary Bug Labs modules, write your own code in the Bug Labs system for your device, and go from there.
Bug Labs' system is meant for prototyping, and all the pieces of it are open-source. This means that once you've got your gadget working, you can use the Bug Labs hardware schematics as the basis for your own mass-produced version of the gadget in question. (You can also use the actual Bug circuit boards in your products, since they screw together nicely even when liberated from their plastic snap cases. However, this would be an expensive way to produce hardware.) The development environment is Eclipse. I'm not familiar with it, but it's open-source and looks to be philosophically similar to the Bug hardware--that is, highly modular.
All input/output to the modules is done via Internet protocols, and each hardware component has its own URL. This will make building mesh or networked devices that aren't physically connected to each other relatively easy, and it also means that all Bug-based gizmos are, by default, Web appliances.
Bug Labs may get into the business of helping developers make Bug-based prototypes into actual mass consumer products, by embedding Bug-standard hardware with developers' code in more permanent cases.
But you can also just get a bunch of modules and hack around in them for fun (the first modules are: GPS, camera, touch-sensitive LCD, and accelerometer; the company plans to release four new modules each quarter). Bug Labs is very much like Lego Mindstorms: A collection of hardware modules you can snap together and then program. You don't need to sell your work to have a whole lot of fun with this system.
Bug Labs hardware should be available by the end of the year.